How Safe is Your Family From Your Art?

What do you do if, say, you want to write about your Great Aunt Mabel and how she was the first homecoming queen of the town of Xelops, but your Great Aunt Mabel is a) a very private person and b) rather cantankerous?

What if you have written a piece that centers on a family drama (a divorce, say) and you know your own perspective of how that drama played out would offend the people on which it is centered?

Desert hike, Anaheim Hills, CA. Copyright 2012 Kate Meadows

Do you write? Do you share?

Or do you wait?

Well, it depends on what matters more to you: getting the story told or preserving particular relationships.

A few years ago, I wrote a series of essays that largely centered on my grandparents – two people who were never in love and who, after 51 years of marriage, broke it off with a bitter divorce. As I was writing about my upbringing, my work at my grandparents’ tree nursery, memories drifted back to me, but not all of them were happy.

I remembered the way my grandma always tried to hide her cigarette smoking and how I’d find cigarette butts under gardening gloves in the spare bedroom. I remembered the smell of the iced tea glasses, how I always wondered if they had been washed. I remembered my grandparents’ blank stares into the back yard, the way they always sat on opposite ends of the table, never held hands, slept in separate bedrooms.

I wanted to submit some of these essays for publication, but I wasn’t sure I was entirely comfortable doing it. My grandfather had passed, but my grandma was still alive. I knew if any of the essays got published, she would know or find out. How would she respond? I didn’t think it would be good.

Was it worth it to me? To pursue publication at the expense of jeopardizing a relationship? I talked about it with my mom (this particular set of grandparents were her in-laws) and she said, very bluntly, “You’re going to have to wait until Grandma dies to do anything with those.”

I couldn’t tell if she was being serious.

But she is always about preserving relationships over everything else, so after thinking about it, I knew she meant it.

About a year later, rather unexpectedly, my grandma did die. I hadn’t pursued publication of the essays as fervently as I had initially imagined. I had submitted a few pieces here and there, and the rejections had trickled in. But I realized I had been submitting those pieces ignorantly, with my eye solely on the prize. If publication had happened, I would figure out a way to deal with the grandma issue.

It wasn’t the right way to go about it. After talking to my mom and some other trusted writer friends, I knew my relationship with my grandma was worth more than an early recognition in some top literary magazine.

Another way to tackle this problem comes from writer Martha Sherrill, who ditched a promising memoir about her father because a family secret she was not willing to expose had surfaced during her writing. Her solution?

Turn it into fiction.

According to an article in Writer’s Digest, Sherrill made the decision to repay a sizable advance for the memoir to keep that family secret safe. Her family was too important to her, she said. Her novel, The Ruins of California, was later published. You can read the story here.

What about you? When your art collides against your family or other loved ones, what do you do? What will you do? What is the most important thing? Is your family safe, or not?

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